For years, political parties have amassed national databases on voters. Now voter groups are increasingly collecting data on the politicians. This includes an ambitious new effort to create a central repository of data on all 513,000 U.S. elected officials, down to village councilor and sewer district board member.
American Solutions, a national grassroots group
based in Washington, DC, that was founded by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich but describes its Internet effort as nonpartisan, is preparing to launch a site that will, at first, allow people to enter basic contact information on all local officials. Then future users can enter their full nine-digit zip code to find the local officials who represent them.
Over the following several months, American Solutions plans to build ways for users to rate the officials on job performance, create social-networking functions around local issues, and let users make free Internet-based phone calls to the officials. The project, called 513connect, won’t start accepting data from users for another week or two, but a template of the data portal can be found here. “Ultimately, this effort is one piece of a larger effort to fundamentally transform how government operates,” says David Kralik, director of Internet strategy for the group.
Existing online platforms share data about the more powerful elected officials, such as federal and state lawmakers. Congresspedia allows wiki-style editing of pages about members of Congress, while OpenCongress allows several ways for users to interact, including writing blog posts about specific bills.
And for detailed information about lobbyist activity and campaign contributions, there are sites that track such spending, including one for members of Congress and another covering major state elected officials. Such databases attempt to better organize information that is already available for public scrutiny but is cumbersome to obtain.
Below upper-level elected officials, though, lies a great mass of elected public officials but no central way to find them, share information about them, or approach them online. Search engines only get you so far with, for example, local municipal officials. Assuming you know these people’s names, there’s still no guarantee that typing them into Google will yield relevant hits. A central site could solve that. Kralik says that the largest such database currently available includes 44,000 elected officials and is accessible through sites such as votesmart.
American Solutions has high ambitions of developing the platform into a free, open-content encyclopedia analogous to Wikipedia, says Kralik. David Weinberger, a 2004 Internet advisor to Howard Dean, and now a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says that the website sounds like a good idea, if Gingrich really isn’t planning to use it just for partisan ends.
“It seems useful to aggregate dispersed information about elected officials and make it easy for citizens to find that information,” Weinberger says. “And because it’s impossible to predict all the different sorts of information that might be relevant, a wiki is a good choice. A wiki is also a good choice because it distributes the chore of building and maintaining a site with ambitions that stretch from the national to the hyperlocal.”
Weinberger says that even a limited site would be helpful to many people. “In the best case, communities of engaged citizens develop around the site,” he says. “But just being able to look up your town’s chief of animal control would be enough.”